Habitus and Learning to Learn: Part II12 min read

Beyond the Content-Storage Metaphor

The underlying neural structures constitutive of habitus are procedural (Kolers & Roediger, 1984), based on motor-schemas constructed from the experience of interacting with persons, objects, and material culture in the socio-physical world (Gallese & Lakoff, 2005; Malafouris, 2013). Habitus affords the capacity to learn because we are embodied beings endowed with the capacities and liabilities afforded by our sensory receptors and motor effectors. In this respect, the neurocognitive recasting of habitus is thoroughly consistent with the “embodied and embedded” turn in contemporary cognitive science.

Traditional accounts of learning rely primarily on the content-storage metaphor (Roediger, 1980). Under this classical conceptualization, experience modifies our cognitive makeup mainly via the recording of content-bearing representations into some sort of mental system dedicated to their inscription and “storage,” most plausibly what cognitive psychologists refer to as “long-term memory.” Because the habitus is seen as the locus of social and experiential learning, and as a sort of repository of past experience, it is tempting to conceptualize it using this content-storage metaphor.

In the current formulation, the metaphor of long-term memory storage emerges as a highly misleading one, and one that would severely limit the conceptual potential of the notion of habitus. In its place, I propose that the habitus contains the “record” of past experiences but it does not store these records as a set of individualized content-bearing “facts” or “propositions” to be accessed as (declarative) “knowledge” or as (episodic) memories that can be recalled in the form of a recreation of previous experiences (Michaelian, 2016). Explicit forms of memory are reconstructive rather than restorative, and rely on the procedural traces encoded in habitus.

The same goes for the procedures generative of goals and plans of action the conscious positing of a future project (Williams, Huang, & Bargh, 2009). The (consciously posited) goal-oriented model of action, rather than being the fundamental framework’ that constrains the very capacity to make meaningful statements about action, as Talcott Parsons (1937) once proposed, is reinterpreted under a habitus-based conception of action as a cognitively unnatural activity (Bourdieu, 2000). Thus, the deliberative positing of a possible future rather than being taken as the point of departure or as the privileged site where a special sort of “agency” is located, must be re-conceptualized, as a puzzling, context-dependent phenomenon in need of special explanation.

Offline Cognition as Habitual Reconstruction

Recent work in the psychology of memory and “mental time travel” support the idea that both the seeming recollection of past events, the imagining of counterfactual and hypothetical scenarios, and the simulation of possible future events, all share an underlying neural basis and even share some recognizable features at the level of phenomenology. Rather than being faithful records of past experiences, autobiographical memories are as reconstructive and hypothetical as the (embodied) simulation and situated conceptualization of future experiences (Michaelian, 2011). What all of these socio-cognitive states do seem to share is a suspension of our (default) embodied engagement with the world (Glenberg, 1997). As such, they represent exceptional states removed at least one step away from “action” and not the core prototypical cases upon which to build a coherent model of action. Habit-based action made possible by habitus is the default, and these other more contemplative and intellectualist mode the exception.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to posit to sharp a divide between habitus and scholastic contemplation of possible futures, counterfactual states, or representational pasts. All of these more intellectualist and content-ful states are rooted in habitus, if only indirectly. The habitus provides the underlying set of capacities making possible the (re)creation of mental “content” on the spot, via processes of situated conceptualization, embodied simulation, and affective-looping (Barsalou, 2005; Damasio, 1999). Nevertheless, while the online activation of facts and memories —for instance during an interview setting—is made possible via habitus, these objectified products are not to be taken as the constituents of habitus.

Habitus and Learning to Learn

In this respect, the habitus stores nothing that can be legitimately referred to as “content.” Instead, the primary form of learning that organizes the neural structures constitutive of habitus is the one that sets the stage for, and actually makes possible, the traditional forms of episodic and declarative learning-s, and the context-sensitive recreation of those contents, which come later in ontogenetic development. When the habitus forms and acquires structure in childhood what the person is doing is in essence “learning to learn.”

As noted in the previous post, the notion of learning to learn has a somewhat obscure pedigree in social theory, but it has figured prominently in the accounts given by Gregory Bateson, who called “deutero-learning,” and in Hayek’s proposal of a groundbreaking theory of perception in the Sensory Order. In both of these accounts, learning is not taken for granted as a pre-existing feature’ of the human agent, but the very ability to be modified by the world is conceived as something that must be produced by our immersion and coupling to the world. The world must prepare the agent to learn before learning can take place.

The standard model of learning takes what Bourdieu referred to as the “scholastic” situation as its primary exemplar. Under this characterization, to learn is to commit a content-bearing proposition (e.g. a belief or statement) to memory. The problem with this conception, as Bourdieu noted, is that it takes for granted the tremendeous amount of previous development, immersion, and “connection-weight setting” that happend in the previous (home) environment to prepare the person for these forms of scholastic learning. The proposed habitus-based model of learning takes the decidedly non-scholastic case of skill-acquisition as its primary exemplar of learning (Dreyfus, 1996; Polanyi, 1958).

Procedural learning, in this sense, results in the picking up of the structural features that characterize the most repetitive (and thus experientially consistent) patterns of the early environment. This is learning about the formal structure of the early world not a passive recording of facts. The structure of habitus primarily mirrors the systematic, repetitive structure of the world in terms of the overall constitution (e.g., empirical and relational co-occurrences) and temporal rhythms of the environment, especially that characteristic of the earliest experiences (e.g., the environment that predates “learning” as traditionally conceived).

Subsequent experiences will then be actively fitted into this pre-experiential (but nonetheless produced by experience) neural structure. In connectionist terms, the procedural learning giving rise to habitus is essentially equivalent “setting the weights” that will remain a durable, relatively resistant to change, part of our neuro-cognitive architecture. These weights partially fix our overall style of perception, appreciation and classification of all subsequent experience. As Philosopher Paul Churchland puts it,

…the brain represents the general or lasting features of the world with a lasting configuration of its myriad synaptic connections strengths. That configuration of carefully turned connections dictates how the brain will react to the world…To acquire those capacities for recognition and response is to learn about the general causal structure of the world, or at least, of that small part of it that is relevant to one’s own practical concerns. That knowledge is embodied in the peculiar configuration of one’s…synaptic connections. During learning and development in childhood, these connection strengths, or “weights” as they are often called, are to progressively more useful values. These adjustments…are steered most dramatically by the unique experience that each child encounters (1996, p. 5)

Accordingly, and in contrast to the view construing habitus as a mnemonic repository of experiential contents the connectionist recasting of habitus as the set of synaptic weights coming to structure further experiential activation, reveals that the habitus stores coarse-grained structural patterns keyed to “reflect” previously encountered environmental regularities and not fine-grained experiential content.

The experiential content that the person is exposed to further down the developmental line will be made sense of using the (perceived, classified and made part of practical action schemes) synaptic weights acquired in early experience. Thus, as a precondition for subsequent experience and (skillful) practical action in the world, pre-experiential learning and adjustment have to happen first. The notion of habitus is useful precisely because it captures an ontogenetic reality: the fact that this learning to learn is sticky and produces durable cognitive structures that modulate the way in which persons are allowed to be further modified by experience.

As the cognitive scientist Margaret Wilson puts it:

Research on skill-learning and expertise has primarily been conducted in the context of understanding how skills are acquired. What has been neglected is the fact that when the experiment is done, or when the real-life skill has been mastered, it leaves behind a permanently changed cognitive system. This may not matter much in the case of learning a single video game or a strategy for solving Sudoku; but the cumulative effect of a lifetime of numerous expertises may result in a dramatically different cognitive landscape across individuals.

(Wilson 2008: 182)

If the active construction, initializing, and relative equilibration (“setting the weights”) of pre-experiential neural structures necessary for making sense of further experience was not an ontogenetic reality and a presupposition for traditional forms of learning, the notion of habitus would not be a superfluous, gratuitous adjunct in social theory. But the cognitive reality is that “the rate of synaptic change does seem to go down steadily with increasing age”(Churchland 1996: 6). This statement is not incompatible with recent findings of neural “plasticity” lasting throughout adulthood, but it does force the analyst to distinguish different types of plasticity in ontogenetic time and the new capacities they are attuned to and result in. This means that a structured habitus is the ineluctable result of any type of (normal) development. Thus, exposure to repeated regularities will create a well-honed habitus reflective of the structure of the regularities encountered early on. It is in this sense that the habitus cannot but be a product of early experiential (socio-physical) realities.


Barsalou, L. W. (2005). Situated conceptualization. Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science, 619, 650.

Bourdieu, P. (2000). Pascalian Meditations. Stanford University Press.

Churchland, P. M. (1996). The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey Into the Brain. MIT Press.

Damasio, A. R. (1999). The Feeling of what Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt Brace.

Dreyfus, H. L. (1996). The current relevance of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment. The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 4(4), 1–16.

Gallese, V., & Lakoff, G. (2005). The Brain’s concepts: the role of the Sensory-motor system in conceptual knowledge. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 22(3), 455–479.

Glenberg, A. M. (1997). What memory is for: Creating meaning in the service of action. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20(01), 41–50.

Kolers, P. A., & Roediger, H. L., III. (1984). Procedures of mind. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 23(4), 425–449.

Malafouris, L. (2013). How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. MIT Press.

Michaelian, K. (2011). Generative memory. Philosophical Psychology, 24(3), 323–342.

Michaelian, K. (2016). Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and Our Knowledge of the Personal Past. MIT Press.

Parsons, T. (1937). The Structure of Social Action. New York: Free Press.

Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal knowledge, towards a post critical epistemology. Chicago, IL: University of.

Roediger, H. L., 3rd. (1980). Memory metaphors in cognitive psychology. Memory & Cognition, 8(3), 231–246.

Williams, L. E., Huang, J. Y., & Bargh, J. A. (2009). The Scaffolded Mind: Higher mental processes are grounded in early experience of the physical world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39(7), 1257–1267.

Wilson, Margaret. 2010. “The Re-Tooled Mind: How Culture Re-Engineers Cognition.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5 (2-3): 180–87.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Habitus and Learning to Learn: Part III – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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